Craig Kielburger

Knowing your why makes you a more productive entrepreneur. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this, and how am I driving positive impact by doing it?’…companies with a strong sense of purpose are more successful and productive.


Craig Kielburger is a social entrepreneur and the co-founder of a family of organizations dedicated to the power of WE, a movement of people coming together to change the world.

Craig was born in 1982 and raised in Thornhill, Ontario. In 1995, when Craig was 12, he read a news article about the murder of 12-year-old Iqbal Masih, a formerly enslaved Pakistani boy who became an activist against child labor. Masih’s story inspired Craig, who started Free the Children, a youth advocacy group which fought to raise awareness and end child labor. In 1995 Craig travelled to Asia, where he met with then-Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien in India to raise the issue of child labor with the Prime Minister, generating major media coverage including 60 Minutes and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Craig continued his activism during his studies at the University of Toronto, where he earned a B.A. in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution in 2006.

Along with his brother Marc Kielburger, Craig co-founded WE Charity in 2008, which provides a holistic development model called WE Villages, helping to lift more than one million people out of poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Back at home in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, WE Schools and WE Day provide comprehensive service learning programs to 16,000 schools, engaging 4.3 million young change-makers. Lastly, he is the co-founder of ME to WE, a pioneering social enterprise, the profits from which help sustain the work of his charitable organization.

Craig is the youngest ever graduate from the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA program. He has also received 15 honorary doctorates and degrees for his work in the fields of education and human rights. Craig is a New York Times bestselling author, who has published 12 books, as well as a nationally syndicated columnist. Craig has received The Order of Canada, the Nelson Mandela Freedom Medal and the World Children’s Prize. He was recently voted by Canadians as one of Canada’s top most trusted influencers in a Readers Digest poll, and along with his brother Marc, he was named Canada’s Most Admired CEO in the public sector in 2015.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

In the early years, our organization WE Charity—then known as Free the Children—struggled as all charities do with the eternal challenge of funding our programs. It came to a head for us in Sierra Leone in 2006. After the civil war ended there, the world’s media moved on to cover other crises, and donor dollars followed them. We wondered how to find a sustainable funding source for our development work on three continents. We had been running a program called Leaders Today, taking young North Americans on international experience trips to educate them about development issues, and inspire them to become leaders for global change. Jeff Skoll, the first president of e-Bay and a mentor to us, suggested we turn that program into a social enterprise to help fund our programs.

Fast forward a few years. As part of our holistic five-pillar development model, we were looking to create economic opportunities for women in the Maasai communities of Kenya where we work. The beautiful handmade beaded jewellery that the women made and wore, was a possible source of income. If the Maasai women could produce that jewellery for us, we could sell it in North America, generating the funds to both pay the Maasai women a fair living wage, and create a sustainable source of funding for our programs in their communities. ME to WE Social Enterprises was launched. Today, ME to WE offers a wide range of socially conscious products and travel experiences that empower people to make a positive impact on their world with their consumer choices.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Travelling 300 days of the year, there really is no such thing as a typical day for me. Today I could be speaking to a school group in Seattle or Vancouver, tomorrow I’ll be on a plane to visit our projects in Ecuador. The day after I’m meeting with corporate partners so integral to the sustainability of our work. So my secret to productivity comes down to one word: team.

I am immensely proud of our team at WE. They are an incredible group of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, driven by their passion to create a positive impact in the world. Wherever I am in the world, I can rely on them to proactively respond to emerging challenges, to keep me informed, and to ensure I am able to make the most productive use of my own time.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The key to bringing ideas to life is seeking good advice. For all our big ideas over the years —from launching our charity back when we were high school kids, to starting stadium-sized events called WE Day, to starting ME to WE Social Enterprises—we have relied on the guidance and counsel of experts and powerful mentors like Jeff Skoll, Oprah Winfrey, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Jane Goodall. We ensure our Board of Directors includes expert representation from a diverse array of sectors, including government, academia, business, and the non-profit world. This gives us a broad base of expertise and wisdom to draw on as we seek to realize our big ideas.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The social enterprise revolution. We are at a tipping point in the global economy where people are waking up to the idea that doing business and doing good are not mutually exclusive. You can combine purpose and profit and, in so doing, be even more successful with both.

I’m not talking about old school corporate philanthropy, where the company makes a few donations to this cause or that. I mean businesses that have a social or environmental mission baked right into their DNA. I think of inspiring examples like the Grameen Bank, which creates access to financial capital in the most vulnerable communities around the world. Or Seventh Generation, which produces a wide range of environmentally friendly household products.

Recently, I visited Huron County, a tiny rural district in central Ontario, Canada, where they’ve made social enterprise a core component of their economic development plan. They’re investing in social enterprises, like a company that makes furniture out of recycled shipping pallets, and a brewery that uses profits to support the arts and local hospitals. In an age of declining government funding and a shrinking donor base, social enterprise holds the key for charities and non-profits to achieve financial independence and sustainability, while growing their impact. The possibilities are limitless.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Knowing your why makes you a more productive entrepreneur. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this, and how am I driving positive impact by doing it?’ Research and surveys by corporate trend experts like Deloitte have repeatedly found that companies with a strong sense of purpose are more successful and productive. That applies on the individual personal level as well. Working for a paycheque and a pension isn’t going to drive your productivity through the Monday morning blahs, or the daily 3 p.m. slump. But if you start every day knowing why you’re doing what you do and end every day knowing how your contribution made the world that little bit better, nothing will slow you down.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would give my younger self the same advice that my wife—an academic and mindfulness expert—gives me almost every day: this too shall pass. Enjoy the times that are sweet. When life presents immense challenges, remember that a time will come when those challenges are behind you, and life is sweet again. When I was a 12-year-old kid setting out to create my own non-profit to fight child labour, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. Yet here we are, obstacles overcome. All things pass.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

The world is fundamentally getting better. I know it’s hard to believe, in an age of walls and wars, with social and political tensions tearing at the fabric of our society. But things really are getting better. Just look at what the world has achieved in the past 10 years: from 2008 to 2018, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty was reduced from 21.3% to 8.6%; the child mortality rate decreased from 5.8% to 3.9%; and youth illiteracy dropped from 11.3% to 8.6%.

As someone who meets hundreds of thousands of youth every year, I can tell you the hope and potential in the coming generations is beyond measure. The kids aren’t just alright—they’re going to save the world.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

At WE, we’ve established a tradition of holding one- and two-day retreats with all of our core team four times a year. One of the most dangerous things that can happen in an organization or company of any size is that each department or team starts working in its own little silo—the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Our retreats are a chance for everyone to hear what everyone else is doing, and what’s happening with the organization as a whole. Each team can see how their piece fits into the greater whole, and helps advance our mission. Individual teams can raise challenges they are facing, creating an opportunity for discussion and group problem-solving.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We examine everything we do through a lens of purpose—not just in terms of programs, but every logistical and business decision. Take, for example, the development of our new headquarters in Toronto, the WE Global Learning Centre, which opened in 2017. As our organization grew and we began looking for new accommodations, it was not just a matter of considering, ‘How do we create more office space for our staff?’ We examined how this new space could itself directly contribute to our work, and to creating impact.

How could we employ technology in the space to increase the outreach of our youth education programs, especially to those in remote areas like Indigenous communities? So we had Skype pods installed that allow us to bring our empowering leadership programs to Indigenous youth anywhere in the country at a very low cost-to-impact ratio.

How can we use this space to benefit at-risk youth in the low-income neighbourhood where the Centre is based? We installed an amphitheatre facility that is not only useful for our team retreats and meetings, but is also made available for community members to use for events like a youth group poetry slam or community meetings or guest speakers.

The purpose lens was applied everywhere, right down to the building utilities, where a state-of-the-art intelligent building control system provided by Siemens reduces our energy use and environmental footprint.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At 12, when I launched my crusade against child labour, I travelled to India and Pakistan. I joined in raids kicking down factory doors to free child labourers. But when I returned later, I discovered that many of the children we had freed were back at work, because their desperate families needed the money. It was a disheartening setback.

We had to take a step back and look deeper. Why were these families forced to sell their children? “Because they’re poor” wasn’t a good enough answer. We had to examine all the underlying causes that contributed to their condition: lack of access to education, clean water, food security, decent health care, and economic opportunities that permitted parents to support their families. And we had to consider how all those factors interconnected with one another—for example, how a lack of nearby water sources or bathroom facilities can interfere with education for girls. This led to the development of our holistic five-pillar WE Villages development model.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

When you pick up your morning newspaper (or sign onto your favourite news platform), don’t just skip to the business section. You’ll find the next market niche just waiting for an entrepreneur to open it up in section A, amidst the local and global news headlines. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told us the headlines about the world’s problems are God’s to-do list. As social entrepreneurs, we take that a step further and look for the opportunity. How can we use the power of business to tackle the problem revealed in the headline?

Just look at Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, one of the richest post-career professional athletes in the world. He made his fortune by looking at the problems facing America’s urban neighbourhoods—economic depression and lack of opportunity. He saw those communities lacked accessible, nearby local entertainment options, so he brought movie theatres and big name restaurant franchises to those neighbourhoods. He created jobs, and ensured that residents’ money kept circulating within the community, boosting the local economy. And in serving a niche market that everyone else had overlooked, he made millions. Of course, he then invested some of those millions back into programs improving education and health care in those communities, further improving life in those communities.

Another great example: Faced with the issue of revolving door prisons, entrepreneurs in the UK launched The Clink Restaurant. The workers are all inmates, who gain employment skills in various aspects of the food services industry, increasing their chance of successful rehabilitation upon release and lowering recidivism rates. And operating as a business, it’s financially sustainable.

Every local or global challenge is also an opportunity. But you won’t find those opportunities in the business pages.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Probably the best money I’ve spent lately was during the Christmas holidays. Instead of spending on gifts for one another, our family used our gift money to help sponsor a Syrian refugee family. It’s a gift that will keep on giving—to them, to us, and to our entire country. That family will enrich us all, both economically through their labour and enterprise once they are settled, and spiritually through the cultural diversity and new perspectives they will bring to our society.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’d have to go with Microsoft OneNote. As someone constantly on the go, meeting new people, picking up new ideas that I want to jot down for future consideration, while also coordinating and advising on our organization’s projects, this tool is invaluable. The simplicity of using tabs to organize projects is great. It’s really easy to customize and make complex tasks as simple as you need them to be. The ability to synchronize is a key feature for me. I can easily pop in quick notes on my tablet or phone during an external meeting and continue the thought when I get back to my desk. And I can add my favorite page, section, or notebook to my Android home screen for quick access. And most importantly, it’s also really easy to share everything with my team.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

At the risk of being self-promotional, we recently co-authored a book with philanthropist and businesswoman Holly Branson, entitled WEconomy: You Can Find Meaning, Make a Living, and Change the World. It’s a window into the next evolution of business. We sought to make it applicable to everyone: the fresh-from-college student looking to find a meaningful career or start their own business; the worker who desires more satisfaction from their career; the recruiter trying to attract the best talent from the Millennial generation; the CEO striving to grow their company and distinguish their product in a crowded marketplace; and the venture capitalist seeking new investment opportunities. The book examines one key principle that we believe will determine the successful businesses of the future: injecting purpose into profit.

What is your favorite quote?

Mother Theresa once told me: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

The overwhelming majority of us will never be a Nelson Mandela or a Muhamad Yunus. In our lifetime, we won’t bring an end to a hateful system of oppression, or launch a global microfinance revolution. Does that mean we can’t all change the world? No. When we approach everything we do in our lives with purpose and love, we change the world in countless small ways.

There is a parable about a wise man who teaches an emperor the power of small actions by putting grains of rice on a chessboard. First one grain, then two, then four, then eight, until the chessboard disappears under a mountain of rice. We see the real life version of this story every Halloween, when youth across North America participate in our WE Scare Hunger campaign, collecting cans of food for their local food banks. Every student collects a handful of cans, but when an entire school comes together, the students fill a gymnasium with food for those in need. When students across North America participate: 3.5 million pounds of food was collected in 2017, alone.

Small things, done with great love, have huge impact.

Key Learnings:

• The next great business idea won’t be found in the business pages of the newspaper, but in the news headlines. Every local and global challenge is a niche and an opportunity just waiting for a savvy entrepreneur who knows how to combine purpose and profit.

• The future is social enterprise. With a new Millennial generation of consumers who will pay more for products that provide a social benefit, and workers for whom meaning is more important than size of their paycheque, infusing purpose into your business will be the key to success.

• Look at everything you do through the lens of purpose. How will this make a positive impact? In answering that question, you’ll find the inspiration, passion and motivation to realize your big ideas, and rally others to your endeavour.

• No entrepreneur is an island. Seek out mentors and expert guidance to help guide you. And surround yourself with a team of dedicated and passionate individuals who share your vision.